(A little long-winded, so feel free to skip to the end for the gist of it.)
If you want to have any hope of making a buck in online publishing, you need hits. You don’t need hits because they equate to influence (not necessarily so) or because they accurately reflect the quality of your content (they don’t, as proven by the rise of the viral list as default content form). You need hits because that’s what advertisers care about. You need enough eyeballs looking at your page to make some company want to pay you to plaster one of their ads on it.
Everything looks free online, but it’s not. That music you stream for free, earning the artist some embarrassingly low royalty rate, cost money to make. If you’re not paying for it, someone else is. Maybe it’s a major label that footed the bill, making the record possible while putting certain constraints on what the artist can say and who the artist can be. Maybe the label holds the artist in a kind of indentured servitude until costs are recouped. If there’s no label involved – if the artist has complete autonomy to record whatever he or she wants, within that artist’s own means – it’s the artist who pays. If the artist isn’t able to make up the streaming shortfall somewhere else – in hard record sales or in merch or in touring – the artist doesn’t stay an artist very long.
There are more paywalls going up on news sites around the internet. It’s terrible for the dissemination of information, but I understand the fundamental problem it attempts to address.
Namely this: As long as everything is free to read but not free to produce, advertisers are needed to make up the difference. Attracting and staying in the good graces of advertisers means continually getting hits, which means continually focusing your publishing efforts on the type of content that gets a lot of hits. Which is not necessarily the type of content that educates, informs, or means much to anyone on a personal level. By attempting to swim against the everything-is-free ethos of the internet – by getting the readers to pay – these news site can theoretically win back their freedom to serve readers instead of advertisers.
Except we’re so used to the internet now that it’s hard to get readers to pay. How many of those paywall news sites do you subscribe to? I subscribe to none.
Get to the point already, Wilcox.
For most of Country California’s life, I’ve been running AdSense ads. This has been a way of offsetting some costs while still remaining basically autonomous, since I never had any interactions with the advertisers. It seemed like a fair enough trade-off.
But I realize now that just knowing the ads were there infected my thinking. I’ve long been laboring under an unexamined belief that if I grew the site enough, AdSense would eventually become a decent source of income… and that as long as AdSense was not a decent source of income, I had not grown the site enough. Instead of making me feel extra motivated to increase hits, this mostly just made me feel like a loser with an under-performing site.
Recently, it dawned on me: If I were able to push a button and magically make the site 10 times more popular than it’s ever been, AdSense still wouldn’t be a decent source of income. That’s a problem with the system, not a problem with me or the site.
Today, all the AdSense has come down. I remove myself from that race.
Selling ads directly to individual advertisers has the potential to be more lucrative, but I’m not a salesman. In fact, whatever the opposite of a salesman is, that’s what I am.
The one time I was asked to ‘sell’ myself to a publicist by providing monthly hit counts and social media follower counts in order to gain access to someone for a feature, I made the cut but ended up underwhelmed by the whole process and outcome. In hindsight, being asked for those stats up front should have been the first red flag that the opportunity was not for me. If someone reaching out to this site is not already specifically interested in and familiar with this site, it’s probably not a great fit. I am not a people-pleasing, one-size-fits-all Taste of Country or CMT.
As a reader, I hate ads. As a television viewer, I hate ads. Why’d I ever bother with them?
The first time I solicited donations on this site, it was to offer an ad-free version of the site to anyone who would donate. Some people took me up on that and have been viewing the site ad-free for years. Today, everyone gets the ad-free version of the site.
I’ve continued accepting donations over the years. Even without the offer of ad-free viewing, many people have been kind enough to contribute. Some have even returned periodically with additional donations, effectively keeping the site online. The names of those who agreed to be recognized publicly can be found on the Donate page… which, as of today, is no longer accepting donations. The page will remain up in appreciation of all those who helped the site through its first 6.5 years.
Why take donations offline too? Remarkable individual acts of generosity aside, they were an irregular and often disappointing source of funding on the whole. With donations, I succumbed to some of the same self-defeating logic I had fallen into with ads. If I asked often enough or in the right way, this source of revenue should become something reliable, and so the failure to make it into something reliable was a failure of me personally.
But why was I always trying to trace things back to my own faults? Maybe one-off donations and selling ads are just poor ways to keep the wheels greased on a project like this.
So, in summary:
- I’ve removed the advertising that crowded up some corners of this space.*
- With it, I removed the pressure to get more hits so that this might turn into something more than it already is… and the disappointment when that didn’t work.
- To whatever extent the subtle-yet-persistent pressure to get more hits affected the type of content I was creating, I removed that too.
- I removed the temptation to talk about anything just because it’s popular, without regard to whether I actually care about it or not. I now have no incentive to do so.
- I removed the need for me to keep inserting sly donation requests. For you, I removed the bother of continually being asked to donate.
- Basically, for the time being, I removed the possibility of this site paying for itself, much less turning a profit, in any way.
With all that out of the picture, what’s left to aim for? Telling the truth. Writing stuff I’d want to read. Engaging real, living people instead of just disembodied sets of eyeballs.
In other words, the only things that actually mattered all along.
It’s a bold new era. Thanks for coming with me this far.
* I hear you clamoring: “What about the Amazon links?” I’ll continue collecting the small percentage that Amazon kicks back on stuff purchased through those, but the payouts will now be passed along to various charities and nonprofits. First up is Bonaparte’s Retreat.